By Lorinda Toledo and Marilyn Friedman
Natasha-Vargas Cooper has written about topics ranging from bath salt addictions to the real-life Don Draper for publications like The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, and The Awl, to name a few. She also hosts a fantastic monthly storytelling show called Public School where she’s been known to share more personal stories such as the time she wrote a Marxist letter to Santa.
Natasha brings substance and context to pop culture obsessions, highlights important issues, and is a master of spinning a compelling yarn. This January, Natasha will be teaching many classes at Writing Pad LA and Online! Join us for an Op-Ed Class, Personal Essay Class, Pitch Letter Class, and Interview/Review Class that will end in you joining the ranks of 93 Writing Pad Alums who have been published in publications such as Marie Claire, Elle, Salon, and the LA Times! She will also be sharing her secret recipe for crafting a blog that garners book deals and writing jobs in her Online Blog Class starting Mon. 11/7!
Natasha took some time out of her busy freelancing schedule to share with us how she crafts compelling tales and how she turned her blog musings into a successful journalism career!
You studied history and public policy and worked as a union organizer out of college. How did you make your first foray into writing?
During college I fanatically kept a blog – musings on movies, books, fashion, my nerve grinding classmates. An editor at E! Online followed along and offered me a modest sum to start reviewing movies for the site. I did this happily and when things were slow with my union job (in Washington DC post-college) I would freelance for east coast magazines as a critic based on my body of work I was able to build with E! Online.
Your first professional writing job was as a film critic for E! Entertainment. Was it a culture shock, stepping into that world from the one you’d come from?
I’ve always been a devotee of pop culture and after doing so much noble work all week it was fun to play fashion police on my off time.
How does your past experience as a union organizer inspire your writing?
Witnessing the spectrum of human behavior through organizing campaigns– everything from cowardice, mini despotism, to great displays of solidarity and empathy– inspires my work. I like to find stories that encompass all those elements.
You started a storytelling show called Public School. How did you get into storytelling?
A fundamental part of being a union organizer is being able to get workers to invest in their own narratives. I primarily worked with healthcare workers. What made them become nurses? What part of their expectations were not being met and why? What other times in their life did they need to confront authority figures? How did they find courage to heal the sick? You learn these stories, as do their co-workers, and it creates a group who identifies their needs, struggles, and successes together. After I left organizing, I still wanted to hear and draw out people’s stories. So I found a bar that would allow that to take place once a month!
What are some of the challenges of using real-life material, both in personal essays for print and on the stage?
You reveal yourself, even when you’re not writing about yourself or talking about yourself. Your sentences are basically like handing away pieces of your used laundry. Any one who is paying attention can see the stray threads and cat hairs. Even the most ardent exhibitionist has some sense of bashfulness and would like to retain some mystery. But that kind of vulnerability is also what makes it invigorating and human.
You started a successful blog based on Mad Men that turned into a critically acclaimed book. How did that evolve?
That was partly accident. I studied 20th century American history with an emphasis on mid-century advertising so it’s always been an obsession of mine and I had tons of books, materials, magazine cut outs, and reservoir of 60’s ephemera. I slipped into a sort of depression in 2009 and wanted to numb out, so I just started blogging every reference in the show. If Don Draper mentioned a Volkswagen ad, I’d find the original print campaign online or at a library and would type up the back story, etc. This got popular and I got a call from some one at Harper Collins and they said do you want to make this a book, and I said, sure why not. And I wrote the book and it was good.
You do hard news and investigative journalism as well as the fun culture stuff. How do you switch hats? Is their a common thread between both styles of writing?
In cultural stuff– movie reviews, book criticism, think pieces about Miley Cyrus– you can be supremely authoritative because it is pure feeling. And you know what you feel when you react to a piece of art or trash and your own feelings are enough to write. You don’t need experts to weigh in. You know how you felt about Spring Breakers when it was over. That’s all you need. Investigative journalism requires much more and you rarely are the authority, instead you are an assembler of all the different facts, feelings, experts, contradictions, etc.
What do you think makes for a good personal essay?
When the author can make distinction between their own therapeutic needs and good storytelling. A personal essay should be compelling because of the content and the writing, not just because of the author’s catharsis.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read and steal. Imitate until you feel comfortable and then your own voice starts to comes through. Start with a noun.
Thanks, Natasha! That was fascinating. We look forward to your Op-Ed Class, Personal Essay Class, Online Blog Class, Pitch Letter Class, and Interview/Review Class! Click on the links to sign up for Natasha’s classes before they are sold out.